The Mental Health Field and Our Complicity in Police Brutality and Repression of Racialized People

During Canadian Mental Health Association’s annual Black History Month panel today, I was pleasantly surprised, even shocked, to see Kabir and Letanya representing the Justice for Jermaine campaign at my office. They gave a great talk about the circumstances behind Jermaine Carby, another young man murdered by the police and someone whom was going through the mental health system, as well as the context of police brutality – as did Jordon Veira and Tennial Rock. 

The talk focused on the important and urgent need for continued opposition to the police and their targeting of Black and other marginalized people. However, often missing within the mental health field is acknowledgment of our complicity in this brutality we claim to oppose. Just as the police has a long history of supporting state and capital in the subjugation of racialized people, psychiatry and the broader field of mental health has not only assisted in this process but stood as a henchman, equal in standing. 

Drapetomania was a common diagnosis given to Black slaves who ran or resisted against the slave master, with the idea being that a racialized person was inherently passive and that resistance itself was a sign of mental disorder. In the 1950s and 60s, thousands of civil rights activists were locked up in asylums and diagnosed with schizophrenia on the basis that resistance in the face of tyranny (violence as they called it) was a major symptom (in fact, countless studies have shown that racialized people are still disproportionately diagnosed with schizophrenia). I even remember reading that Malcolm X had a psychiatric assessment as a part of his FBI file. 

Here in Canada, I often think of the example of a Chinese man in 1930s BC who was left wandering destitute and homeless after suffering injuries from a coal mine explosion. In utter frustration, he hurled a brick through a Bank of Montreal window hoping for some reprieve through arrest – food and shelter. He was quickly taken to a mental asylum and deemed unwell. When he refused to stop speaking his native tongue of Cantonese, he was understood to have Been speaking-in-tongue. He, along with 65 others, was taken in chains by boat back to China – especially ironic, as many had been brought in chains as indentured servants to work in mines and on the railroad prior.  bell hooks suggests that anger in the face of oppression is legitimate, and the mental  health field has had a long history of debasing the notion of anger not only as legitimate but as necessary.

But of course, these are not anecdotes confined to history books, just as processes of colonialism leave an imprint on people, it leaves an imprint on ‘professional practices’. The most overt is the use of ‘forming’. For those not familiar with the mental health field, social workers – and indeed just about anyone – can apply to a psychiatrist or a justice of the peace for someone to be deemed a risk to themselves or others and brought into a hospital and held for 72 hours … which then can be extended to two weeks … three weeks … and so forth. Many times social workers apply for a form with the best of intentions, genuine concern for the people they work with, but the consequences and coercive nature of this practice cannot be denied. In my own work, I have seen a number of these examples. One that has remained especially visible in my memory was when I was instructed to allow police into an agency-run residence to execute a forming. I shamefully was too scared to intervene as I witnessed police drag a racialized client through the hallway, across the icy driveway, into the police car. I remember intricately, the cut on his face, the blood on his chin. Prior to this, the individual had only asked that he be shown the form – well within his legal rights. Apparently, the two police officers had left it in the car and refused to bring it to him; instead, in mockery of the individual, an officer showed him his notepad, claiming it was ‘magic’. I don’t know what has happened to this individual since, or whether he had filed a complaint, but what I do know is that by silently standing by – whether or not I had been afraid – I had been complicit.

Other times, even good intentions are lacking, as I have seen people dragged back to hospitals as an administrator was unhappy that the ‘patient’s’ discharge papers were missing the ‘patient’s’ signature. This is admittedly pure speculation, but I would not be surprised that those formed – and unable to get out of the forming due to difficulties racialized people often face in navigating the psychiatric system – are largely racialized.

But our complicity in violence is often more subtle, more insidious. I am referring to practices that serve the same purpose drapetomania and schizophrenia had. How often have we heard psychiatrists and other mental health professionals respond to concerns raised by Black clients of feeling followed or targeted as examples of delusional thought? In one fell swoop, the legitimacy of the person’s complaints is erased. Even racialized practitioners often do this, despite a willingness to acknowledge and critique racial profiling by the police. We practice what Bonnie Burstow described as Mad Illiteracy – an inability or really, an unwillingness to understand or find meaning in statements made by those deemed ‘mad’. If we were willing to listen, I would suggest that these individuals are only expressing a sensitivity (and by sensitivity, I don’t mean it in a pathologizing context [ie. ‘why are you being so overly sensitive’]) to the very real violence that racialized communities experience everyday. And given the destructiveness of these state practices, why shouldn’t these matters deserve an extra-ordinary response (note: I am paraphrasing an example provided by Burstow in her talk).

The speakers spoke of a number of possible responses to this violence. Kabir spoke of the need for mental health agencies to cut ties with the police. This would indeed lead to measurable improvements to the lives of many however unlikely, but I would suggest the problem goes much deeper, that as I have described, the very foundations of the mental health field are rooted in racism and that divorcing it from the police does not acknowledge the fact that, the institutions serve not as subservient to the police but as a fellow henchman. Tennial suggested that the understanding of experience of racism through a mental health lens (specifically, PTSD) was a sign of progress and the proliferation of anti-oppression in mental health services/therapy was an example of resistance. While I would not downplay the need for recognition and examination of the emotional effects of racism, as can be seen with my previous arguments, it is very dangerous to understand experiences of racism through psychiatry as it will inevitably serve to devalue the expressions of oppressed people. Even if we were to ignore the more destructive elements of this, there is something profoundly problematic that people cannot acknowledge someone saying that racism has traumatized them as legitimate unless a psychiatrist describes this response as PTSD.  Secondly, I would suggest that the proliferation of anti-oppression principles – with therapists charging hundreds of dollars for empathatic therapy, narrative therapy, feminist therapy, and many more – not as progress but as appropriation. It is not to say that racialized people won’t see benefits to attending such therapy (and a bit of self-disclosure, I see a therapist and am grateful for their assistance), and it is certainly preferable to more coercive forms of mental health treatment, but the one key element that makes mental health treatment crucial to the maintenance of oppressive structures – individualization – is not challenged. Instead of encouraging collective action, the promotion of these approaches suggests, despite the efforts of even the most well-intended therapist, that what needs to be fixed is the person instead of the social processes that have caused the damage. This in itself is a much broader question that I will leave to another day.

To end on a more positive note, I would like to emphasize another suggestion made by Kabir, that the most important response to these challenges is solidarity and collective action. One-on-one support can play a crucial role, but only in this context – of solidarity and collective action – can we avoid the trap of pathologization. Burstow also speaks to this in her talk, suggesting that the goal should be to replace mental health institutions and professionals as providers of mental health services with the community itself (note: I will be writing about Burstow’s excellent talk on re-imagining mental heath care from an anarchist perspective shortly). If we truly want to address the emotional impact of racist violence, we must move away from the assumptions imposed by the mental health field. We must liberate the notion of healing from the self-proclaimed healers. And for those of us who work in the mental health field, many of us who came to this field out of a genuine desire to tend to the wounds inflicted by these very unjust arrangements, we must begin by acknowledging that we are complicit in the very violence against racialized people we say we oppose. 


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